Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Abbey of Dorchester

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 5
Abbey of Dorchester

by David Oswald Hunter Blair


Founded in 1140 by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, for Canons of the Order of St. Augustine (or Black Canons). Dorchester, an important Roman city of Mercia, about nine miles from Oxford, had been the seat of a bishopric from A.D. 634, when St. Birinus, the first bishop, was sent to that district by Pope Honorius, until 1085, when the See of Mercia was transferred to Lincoln. The abbey, founded fifty-five years later, was dedicated in honour of Sts. Peter, Paul, and Birinus, was richly endowed out of the lands and tithes of the former bishopric, and had twelve parishes subject to it, being included in the Peculiar of Dorchester, until the suppression of peculiars. The first abbot appears to have been Alured, whose name occurs in 1146 and again in 1163; the last was John Mershe, who was elected in 1533, and in the following year subscribed to the king's supremacy, with five of his canons, and was given a pension of £22 a year. The revenues of the abbey were valued at the time of its suppression at about £220. Henry VIII reserved the greater part of the property of the house for a college, erected by him in honour of the Holy Trinity, for a dean and prebendaries; but this was dissolved in the first year of his successor. No register or cartulary of Dorchester Abbey is now known to exist, and only a single charter, confirming the donation of a church by King John, is given by Dugdale. Edmund Ashefeld was the first impropriator of the abbey site and precincts, which afterwards passed through various hands. The stately church of Dorchester Abbey, as it stands today, was built entirely by the Augustinian Canons, although there are traces on the north side of Saxon masonry, probably part of the ancient cathedral. The whole length of the church is 230 feet, its width seventy, and its height fifty-five feet. The north transept with its doorway is of the Norman period; the north side of the nave and chancel arch, early English, the south side of nave, south aisle, and choir, Decorated; the south porch, late Perpendicular. The extraordinarily rich sanctuary, with its highly decorated windows (including the famous northern one known as the "Jesse" window) and beautifully carved sedilia and piscina, dates from 1330. One of the very few existing leaden fonts in England is in this church.

D.O. HUNTER-BLAIR